Maori seats important to political process

The presence of Maori Party MPs in Parliament has defused much of the anger and protest previously expressed by Maori who felt marginalised within the political system and society's institutions, says Lachy Paterson. Do we want to return to the Waitangi Days of old?

The National Party has announced a policy to remove the Maori seats in Parliament. This stance is hardly new, and given the party's inability to capture these seats since 1948, it is hardly surprising that it has surfaced again.

Under the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act, citizens had to own property qualification to be able to vote.

Few Maori qualified because most neither occupied a suitable Pakeha-style house nor possessed land with a "crown title".

In 1867, New Zealand was still in a period of conflict, with the New Zealand Government taking responsibility from the British Army for subjugating "rebellious" Maori elements.

The government had also confiscated vast tracts of land from those judged to be in rebellion, and had established the Native Land Court with the avowed aim of extinguishing native title in order to facilitate Pakeha settlement.

Humanitarians were still a powerful force in England and were voicing disquiet over the New Zealand Government's treatment of its indigenous people.

So it is perhaps not so surprising that Sir Donald McLean, former government land purchaser and Native Secretary, when a prominent politician, pushed through legislation that created four Maori seats, a temporary measure, in order to create the illusion in London that Maori now had a voice in the legislature.

Proportionally, Maori should have had at least 14 members, not four.

The Land Court's slow processes meant that Maori were not rapidly qualifying as propertied voters, and parliament made the Maori seats permanent in 1876.

For many years the Maori members were relatively ineffective, as most did not have a good grasp of English, and were marginalised within the House, and it was not until the early 20th century that Maori elected young educated Maori fluent in English.

For most of the time between 1867 and 1996, Maori were numerically under-represented.

Despite population increases, parliament did nothing to increase Maori representation.

It is little wonder that many Maori felt marginalised from the political processes and did not bother even to register, let alone vote.

This was exacerbated in the post-war years when the Labour/Ratana stranglehold on the Maori seats meant voting was a mere formality.

In 1975, Maori were given the opportunity to self-identify with regard to their electoral status.

The number of people eligible to enrol on the Maori roll increased, but Maori were also able to opt out into the general roll.

Many chose to vote in general electorates because they realised that their vote would be more effective there.

MMP changed all this in 1996. Despite the electoral commission favouring the abolition of the Maori seats, Maori themselves did not want to lose their unique representation. Instead, the legislation allowed for truly democratic Maori representation for the first time, with the number of seats determined by the number of Maori who chose to put their names on the Maori roll.

There were five Maori seats in 1996, and with more Maori opting for the Maori roll, candidates will contest seven seats in 2008.

If all New Zealanders with Maori ancestry opted for the Maori roll, this could potentially double, but it is clear that many Maori are content on the general roll.

Normally under MMP, electorate seats are relatively unimportant, except for struggling minor parties unable to gain the required 5% party vote threshold.

New Zealand First's seizure of the Maori seats in 1996 finally broke Labour's hold, but the size of their party vote meant that the influx of its Maori MPs did not actually change its total number of elected MPs.

The situation was the same in 1999, when Labour regained the seats. What was unusual about the 2005 election was that the Maori Party gained four of the seven seats while gaining disproportionately a much lower party vote.

Polls suggest that Maori will continue to split their votes, thus gaining a distinctive political voice in the House, while continuing to support Labour, their traditional ally, through the party vote.

For National, eliminating the Maori seats makes sense.

The Maori Party would be difficult to work with. If National gives in to Maori Party demands over foreshore and seabed legislation, its Pakeha support will shrink, and the Maori Party cannot appear to compromise too much, lest it lose its core support.

However, if all Maori voters were spread around 60 general electorates, it would be difficult for the Maori Party to win a seat.

Maori voters would probably drift back to voting for the Labour candidate, but Labour's share of the party list would be unlikely to increase significantly. Labour would no doubt like to see the back of the Maori seats, although it would be loath to admit it.

By eliminating the Maori seats, National hopes to destroy the Maori Party.

Electoral proportionality would be restored, and parliament would be rid of a party that both National and Labour regard as difficult to deal with, and potentially destabilising.

To achieve its goal, National and its allies would need to gain a majority in the House.

This is a distinct possibility, which suggests that National is serious, and its policy is not mere electioneering.

If it formed a majority government and failed to act on its stated policy, then it would appear distinctly weak and indecisive.

However, any moves to abolish the Maori seats are likely to provoke an outcry from Maoridom. The fact that all the main parties select Maori for electable seats is irrelevant.

Maori now have their own effective and independent voice within parliament, and the thought of all its representatives returning to the control of Pakeha-dominated parties would be galling.

Maori also see the Maori seats, and the Maori Party, as an expression of tino rangatiratanga, of embodying their tangata whenua status. Perceived attacks on Maori as a whole, such as the fiscal envelope or the Foreshore and Seabed Act, have galvanised Maori opposition in the past and abolishing the Maori seats would no doubt provoke a similar response.

The Maori Party MPs have, for the most part, been moderate and effective representatives.

Their presence in parliament, providing a Maori voice, has defused much of the anger and protest previously expressed by Maori who felt marginalised within the political system and society's institutions.

Do we want to return to the Waitangi Days of old?

Perhaps when Maori themselves make the suggestion parliament should act to remove the Maori seats, but not before.

Dr Lachy Paterson is a lecturer at the Te Tumu: School of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago.


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